Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino (published initially 2003, translated 2007 by Rebecca Copeland, 530 pages)
Grotesque is the third book by Natsuo Kirino that I have read since starting my blog in July, 2009. I first reviewed her work Real World which is a vivid look at the life of four late teenage girls and a boy that one of the girls becomes involved with. The boy beats his mother to death. I next read her Out, another murder story centering around the lives of four women who work the night shift at a factory that makes box lunches. Kirino is known for spot lighting the dark side of modern Japanese life. She writes about the people who do not fit into corporate Japan, people on the edge of breakdowns, people who do not feel quite comfortable in lighted rooms One of the things we can learn from her work is that a failure to succeed in society is not always a failure of intelligence, sometimes it comes from seeing through things we are not supposed to.
Grotesque centers on two women. It is narrated by the sister of one of the women. Yuriko, the sister of the narrator, is incredibly beautiful. She is so beautiful she has never felt any need to cultivate any other attributes or develop any talents. Yuriko's looks have always gotten her what she wants. As the story begins, the narrator and her sister have begun attendance at the prestigious Q High School in Tokyo. The narrator, a teenage girl of course, comes to hate and have contempt for everyone at the school. She develops a special dislike for a classmate at the school, Kazue Sato. Yuriko learns in High School how to use her body to get what she wants. She progresses from "paid dating" in High School, to super expensive call girl when in her late teens and twenties down to horribly ugly street walker as she passes forty. We also see the classmate, Kazue enter prostitution and its effect upon her.
Most of the narrative is told in the first person by the narrator as she tries to understand the forces that pushed both of these girls into prostitution. The two have another thing in common (this is not a spoiler, it is on the back cover). They are both murdered by the same customer. The narrator wants to understand how this could have happened. She thinks deeply about the dysfunctional elements in the upbringing of her and her sister. She also has found a journal kept by her sister Yuriko and she shares that with us also. I tried to understand the reasons behind the horrible decline of Yuriko from this journal. We also read the disposition of the man that killed the two women, an illegal immigrant laborer from China. We also are given an idea as to what motivates the customers of the women. Most of the men are married so it is not a simple unfilled needed for sex.
Kirino does a very good job in making these characters come to life for us. Yuriko loves her work, she loves the power she has over men and she loves the sense of having a night as well as a day identity. She loves the feel of the streets at night. Her life is not pretty and no details are left out in depicting her decline. She goes from a million yen escort (about $8000.00) for the wealthiest men in Japan to a 3000 yen street walker (about $23.00) taking on the homeless in vacant lots. There are no details left out and if made into a movie this would be x-rated in parts. (In fact the USA publisher censored the translation by removing a section on male on male prostitution). For better or worse we are along for the ride as Yuriko spirals toward a death she almost seems to seek. The classmate also has her own story to tell.
Grotesque is an exciting book, sort of. I say sort of as we do not really feel sympathy for the characters. It also gives us a voyeuristic look at the business encounters of the women in the narrative. Maybe these scenes are fun to read (somebody must like them as her books are million plus sellers in Japan) but our pleasure in this is not something to make us proud of our literary refinement! The characterizations in this book are very good. The descent, if it should be called that as this term assumes a value judgement, is very credible. There a lot to learn about Japanese society in Grotesque.
Here is what I would suggest on the work of Natsuo Kirino. She is worth reading for her insight into Women, her look at the darker side of contemporary Japanese society. This entry from Wikipedia on Noir Fiction describes the world of her novels well
In this sub-genre, the protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. He is someone tied directly to the crime, not an outsider called to solve or fix the situation. Other common characteristics...are the emphasis on sexual relationships and the use of sex to advance the plot and the self-destructive qualities of the lead characters. This type of fiction also has the lean, direct writing style and the gritty realism commonly associated with hard boiled fiction.
Change "he" to "she" and you have a great description of Kirino's Work. I would advise those new to her work to start with her shortest translated novel, Real World. If you like that book a lot then in a few months read Out, then go on to her longest work Grotesque. I liked Grotesque, I am glad I read it and when another one of her 16 or so novels is translated I will probably read it. Some would say, and not be wrong, that her three books are very similar.